It’s become a common occurrence to categorize everything we encounter. This enables us to better understand the world. If we put everything into boxes, into categories, it’s easier to understand the unknown or the alien and uncertain. Formal logic works this way (albeit with different categorizations, such as how we put together arguments), but it’s not strictly limited to logic.
Perhaps Aristotle is to blame for this intensive categorizing in the West. Aristotle was famous for categorizing his thought, in order to make it clear. A famous example is his categorization of the active life versus the contemplative life as separate but good ways of living, when it would seem a synthesis of the two would lead to an ultimately better life.
Categories can be helpful, until they start to lead to stereotypes about people. When we start categorizing people, we have lost sight of our brotherhood (the brotherhood of man, as Leo Tolstoy would imply), and we put people in boxes that may not be good fits for them. Rather, I posit that human life is much messier than that, and humans themselves require flexible interpretation. For instance, we categorize when we say, “All homeless people are criminals,” or “All mentally ill people are violent.”
Unfortunately, I have seen this too much in our modern society.
I’d like to use this as the background for what I’m going to talk about today, the categories that we face and must work to dismantle and overthrow. I’m going to tell a story about me and my team doing outreach work for the homeless.
All you need to know is we were walking by the homeless shelter, passing out necessary items such as hygiene kits and burritos.
This eventually led to a seemingly inevitable confrontation with the police.
The leader of my squad was confronted by an officer of the law. I wasn’t there as this occurred, but this is what I heard happened from the squad leader. The officer tried to use every argument he could to intimidate the leader into his version of compliance. He did this, for instance, by making it clear that without a handler’s permit, what we were doing was illegal … but, we had the permit. Another example was when the officer said he could cite him and other people for clogging the streets, when they had stopped because the officer had stopped them. There were other examples of this, but because the leader was aware of his rights, he thankfully wasn’t detained. He instead called the president of the organization, to advocate for our cause.
The president showed up while the squad leader left. Meanwhile, I’d gone with a friend to get more supplies, but came back to see at least three officers surrounding the president of the organization. I thought it was just a routine conversation, but when I passed the scene, I could tell that it was heated.
I knew, then, that I needed to stay and observe, investigate and then later document. The president deserved a witness, and I was hoping that if it became necessary for me to intervene, I would. I ultimately didn’t, because it seemed that would make it worse, and I trusted the competence of the president. Nonetheless, I was at least going to be there as a support.
The conversation was heated. This is what I recall.
A kid was riding his bike and giving a little attitude to the officer. It was harmless lip, but the officer did not appreciate it. To an extent, I don’t blame him: nobody wants to be disrespected. Nonetheless, it appeared that the kid didn’t mean any harm. The officer, however, tried to circumvent this assumption by saying (this is a paraphrase), “You don’t know what we see down here. You don’t know how many busts we have made.” He went on to say, “You may see an innocent kid riding his bicycle, someone who is just down on his luck or whatever. But I see a criminal, or at the very least, someone breaking the law.”
I want to pause for a moment to talk about this, and then I’ll continue.
There is something that sits unwell with me, with listening to all of this. On the one hand, I hear a burnt out officer. He has literally seen the worst in people. In fact, he sees it on a daily basis. But his view of human nature is so corrupted by the bad that he has seen that he doesn’t see any of the good, either. As the president said later, “How are we making things worse by giving out food to people who need it and by cleaning up the city?” There is a valid point there.
The point being, I think further consideration needs to go to this complicated interaction. How is it that we see a kid riding around on a bicycle (theoretically at least), and an officer just sees a criminal? Both viewpoints can’t be right, naturally. Not only that, this is a dichotomization. The problem with dichotomization is that we judge people on the extremes of a continuum: We assume the person is either completely innocent or completely dangerous. In all reality, all humans have the capacity for good and bad, correct?
Meaning, categories have crept in: The need to categorize has crept back in. Either way, there is the implicit assumption that we are judging another human being as either this or that, when he might not fit either category, when his “category” might be a lot more fluid. Maybe he’s a kid who has gotten into a little trouble now and then, but minor trouble. Maybe he’s a kid who does drugs every day. Maybe he literally is a kid who is down on his luck. Maybe he likes to push his luck with officers because he doesn’t like them … or maybe he does it because he’s afraid of them, and wants to assert whatever power he has. Maybe he really did steal the bike … or maybe, as the kid said, he bought it with his own money. The point is, we need to dismantle these categories. What I see with this exchange is an intensive need to categorize a human being in a category that may not be accurate: This kid, in other words, might not fit neat and tidy in either box A or box B. He might fit in box C, or as I’d prefer to say, in no box at all. He’s simply a human being, his backstory the complicated baggage that goes with him. Aside from this, our own “viewpoint” of the kid was categorized and assumed (in my opinion, presumptuously): Because we want to help the homeless, we must be bleeding hearts that are ignorant of what really happens down at the shelter. This could be true to an extent, but it’s excess categorization, and at least in my case, it’s wrong. I work to have a realistic expectation of what it is that I do, and the population that I serve, and I do this constantly, constantly revising and editing and updating.
Anyway, let me continue.
The officer at one point brought up the idea of “us versus them.” In this case, it was the police versus the homeless. The officer made it explicit that he believed all of the homeless were harmful and dangerous people, justifying this belief and negating our interpretation because “We don’t see it all.” (A point of contention that doesn’t need to really be addressed here, except to say that one should never invalidate the experience of another person, even if it is “less expert” or “less experienced.”)
This idea, of us versus them, of saying “We are us and not that,” is reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s famous idea of, “We need to say we are white so we can say we aren’t black. We need to say we aren’t in the mental asylum and crazy so we can say we are sane.” It is the famous problem of power that Foucault warns us about.
As I’ve been gaining more and more experience doing outreach work and reaching out to the homeless and dealing with other people in the community, I’ve learned that I must try to refine my notions, my truth, my convictions, my actions, my thoughts and theories and ideas. So I want to make it clear that I don’t want to paint this officer, or any officer, in a bad light. (The officer at one point even took offense that we might do just that, as there was a documentary crew there recording the whole thing.) But I do want to make it clear that there are certain assumptions being made, with concepts that when extrapolated philosophically, lead to astonishing and troubling conclusions. I’ve brought up a few, such as the problem with excess categorization (stereotyping …) and the power structures that be (and naturally, oppress).
I have to admit, I feel torn. On the one hand, I want to be charitable towards the officer. He is in the muck of it. But what he doesn’t (at least this officer … I don’t want to speak for all officers of the law, as that would violate my problem with categories) see is that he is only representing power and authority, and essentially, power and authority with impunity. I appreciated his point about the fine line between mercy and justice, but I don’t appreciate stereotyping all homeless people as criminals, or assuming automatically that a kid riding what looks to be a new bike was stolen. I don’t appreciate an officer that flaunts their power, either. He did this with the president by saying, “I could cite you any minute now,” even though he didn’t say what he would cite us for (a convenient way of intimidating us and not allowing us to assert our rights, essentially circumventing any opportunity for us to correct our law breaking). I do appreciate an officer that wants to uphold law and order. But I am deeply afraid that the power structure, of the “us versus them,” of the “police versus the homeless versus a group of people feeding the homeless and breaking the law,” has not been taken into account.
This was made especially clear when the president was told by the officer that essentially, our organization doesn’t have the authority to pass out food to homeless people, or even more problematic, even associate with the homeless. This was made clear implicitly and explicitly in the conversation. I was very impressed with the way the president handled the situation, however, by working to build community, build bridges between his organization and authority, and by constantly working to respect the officer’s point of view. He also said multiple times, “I think we both want the same thing,” which is essentially, to alleviate poverty and more importantly, build community and alleviate suffering. (The officer did, unfortunately, make a snide remark that undercut what the president meant by community, when he said, “Isn’t that community?” in response to a comment the president had made.)
Naturally, I take issue with the underlying problem here: Namely, being told what we can and can’t do with our resources, and what we can and can’t do in order to help others. This is exactly why I struggled for four years to find an organization that I not only liked and respected, but that allowed me to work with them. The resistance to people like me by people in power is, unfortunately, excessive and real.
One final point that was brought up: Drugs. The drug problem. The officer had the attitude that we are enabling drug addicts by wanting to rehabilitate them. The president responded by saying that it’s the infrastructure that needs to change, and that rehabilitation would be good, and helpful, it’s just not available. Whatever the case, according to my research, rehabilitation and channeling resources to that is not, actually, enabling, and this rests on a very simple premise: Namely, by showing that we want to rehabilitate someone addicted to drugs, we give that person respect and empowerment and allow them to believe they can overcome their addictions. But they need, however, the support in order to do this and to change, thus the importance of needing more programs for rehabilitation.
What were my feelings as this heated exchange occurred? I wanted to say something, but the conversation was taking its own turn, the president was handling himself, I wanted to respect the officer, and it was a complicated situation. But I definitely felt the flow of adrenalin, and my heart hammered during the whole exchange. It was one of those moments where you just need to stand on conviction, even if you don’t know what that means. Even if that means all you’re doing is standing beside a friend, someone who you see as trying to do the right thing. I’m going to, so I don’t fall into the trap of categorizing, not say that the officer doesn’t want this, but again, I draw attention to the power structures at play to challenge any claim that the officer is completely off the hook. I think responsibility and accountability is important, in line with my appreciation for Sartrean existentialism.
And what could the president have done better, speaking of accountability? There is currently much upheaval with these programs, so I’m not sure what he could have done better. A lot of upheaval, actually, with political figures cracking down, with law enforcement increasing their activity and presence by the shelter, and as the president made clear, he was working to follow the right channels, but trying to explain that it takes time, especially with all of the changes. In other words, what was the real reason why the officer wanted to stop us from handing out food to people? What did we do that was wrong, by choosing to act and to serve? Especially as homeless people are saying thank you to us, and making it clear that we are valued and that we aren’t just wasting resources? I have indeed struggled with organizations, and this is exactly why: Relationships become adversarial and antagonistic, and it ultimately becomes a power play: Whoever has the best hand wins, and that usually isn’t people like me that just want to help the homeless, because I have no clout, authority, power. To use a good metaphor: It’s a lion being taken on by a tougher lion, and we sometimes just aren’t the tougher lion.
In all honesty, I felt sad at what I witnessed. I saw a burnt out and frustrated cop who no longer believes in humanity, particularly the homeless; I saw homeless people being marginalized, not listened to, ignored, stereotyped, and essentially, denied a voice, a say, in the matter (I literally recall no instance of a homeless person having the chance to say what they wanted, not what our organization or the officer wanted); I saw a good man (the president) trying to work to build community, do the right thing, show that he cares, and respect all parties involved; and I saw myself, a scared but passionate and determined kid, trying to stand for what I believed to be right, even if I was in error.
I want to close on two notes, however, generally positive notes. One is my current but fairly robust philosophical theory of action, and the other is an example/short anecdote of why I do this work, why it matters, and why I won’t give up.
First off: My justification for what I’m doing. At the end of the outreach, people who were making the documentary took the time to get my perspective. I threw philosophy at them (meaning well, of course): I threw, rather, what I considered to be the most important thing I had to offer at the moment, given my place in time and where I’m at mentally and in terms of my life.
I’ve been advocating epistemological nihilism lately: Namely, the idea that knowledge doesn’t have value, or at least, that we overvalue knowledge. So when we become aware of what another person does, we have knowledge of what that person did … but that is useless, at least for the intents and purposes of my theory.
It’s unimportant because it’s simply our subjective truth, our interpretation of events.
But this ultimately leads to the question of, “Then what should be done?” That’s when I advocate conviction. This is because conviction necessarily leads to action. Hannah Arendt beautifully conveys how speech and action are important for a community, and I agree with this. But where do we get our action? By having conviction, and by asserting our values. So, we can grant that maybe our ethics are wrong. We can grant that, for the sake of argument, perhaps we are making the situation worse downtown, and that we need to work on our ethics and approach. But nonetheless, we act, and we act because we have conviction. What should be done and what ought to be done, and what other people think of what we do: It’s just knowledge. That is not personal conviction, however, and I argue that what’s really important is what we do, is what we say and how we act. I amend this by saying that we must have personal responsibility, but that our goal should be to try and alleviate suffering, to build community, and definitely not categorize people; we should, as Kant said, treat others with dignity and respect. As a great thinker once said, the important question we should be asking is, “How did things get to be the way they are?” In other words, why did the homeless become homeless? Or even, why is the officer seemingly being antagonistic to us, and heavy-handed? Once we understand such things, we can be in a better position.
I would also add, even though I didn’t say this, that our goal should also be to be compassionate and caring.
Now, philosophy aside, I was going to explain why this is valuable work. Why it means. Earlier today, I saw a guy who was hungry (and presumably homeless). He asked for a cigarette. I didn’t have one. He saw I had a sandwich and asked if he could have some. I told him, “Sure,” and gave him some of my sandwich, even though there wasn’t much. But I figured, I would be like Gavroche, and share the bread I have, as I have plenty.
Guess what happened after the outreach? I saw the homeless guy again. The team (including the president) was caring for him. His foot had blisters or something along those lines, and they were treating it. They gave the guy dignity and respect.
That means a lot to me. It means a lot to me to realize that these people are always there, and how we can run into them when we least expect it … and how, we never know how we enriched their lives, and they don’t know how they enrich ours.
That, to me, is what makes the struggle worth it.